Last updated: February 19. 2013 12:56PM - 636 Views

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Kingston resident Brian Shiner attends every Luzerne County Council and committee meeting. He keeps meticulous notes and even has visited county-owned facilities at his own expense to determine if something is amiss.


Mike Giamber, Fairmount Township, said he spends hours every day researching and discussing county government matters.


Jackson Township resident Ed Chesnovitch devotes much of his free time attending meetings and calling people to share views and debate the state of the county.


This hyper level of citizen involvement in county government hasn't existed in recent memory and blossomed with the county's conversion to home rule in January.


We have a group of citizens who are really interested and taking a lot of time in their day to get involved in county government, and it's refreshing, said county Controller Walter Griffith, who has noticed 15 to 20 actively involved citizens.


The government change created an opportunity for a fresh start, and more citizens want to prevent county leaders from slipping back into past practices, Griffith said.


I think these people who come to meetings are genuinely interested in making government better and not in personal attacks, he said. Express yourself in government. If you never say anything, you have no dog in the fight.


While citizens often offer a unique perspective and expose problems, they can't expect immediate response to everything they present because government works slowly, he said.


I was an activist for many years, and from the outside you think something should happen now, but when you're on the inside you see it's not so simple because you have to talk to people and try to make things work and comply with procedures, Griffith said.


Watchdog at work

Shiner is essentially working an unpaid part-time job as a county watchdog but said he views it as his duty.


Even though we have a representative form of government, it doesn't excuse us from staying involved and keeping an eye on what our representatives do, he said.


The alternative is scary, said Shiner, who retired and moved back to the area to care for his parents in their elder years.


If we don't stay involved, I'm afraid our new government will fall back into what we've had for the past decades, he said.


Attending government meetings was once as much a routine as weekly worship for many citizens, he said. Today's busy family schedules and priorities have prompted most to rely on the government running itself, he said.


Understanding all the intricacies of complicated county government has become consuming for him.


If I can use my time to keep track and relay back to people who are busy, that's fine with me, he said.


Ed Gustitus, also of Kingston, often brings a stack of newspaper clippings to council meetings so he can present his take on recent county news. He sporadically attended past county commissioner meetings over the past decade but has become a fixture at meetings under home rule.


I come to remind them of the problems they have. Somebody's got to remind them, he said as he headed into a council strategic initiatives committee meeting last week.


Gustitus, an attorney, loaded his legal pad with observations at the committee meeting and presented so many during public comment, council members questioned whether they need to implement a time limit.


Chesnovitch broke his femur when he was hit by a car while putting up a sign supporting home rule before it was adopted by voters. Jokingly, he says he wants the new government to succeed because he was almost killed promoting it.


The retiree said he has joined other citizens forming a new still-unnamed group to make sure home rule charter mandates are followed.


We'll be looking out for the people of this county. We want to make sure the charter does what it was designed to do, he said.


An organized group may get more attention, said Chesnovitch, who believes the views of citizens are often shrugged off.


It angers me when they ignore you, he said.


Giamber, who formed the Friends of Home Rule political action committee pushing for home rule, said he helped convince voters to change governments and has an obligation to see it through.


He said he's frustrated key components of the new charter are not in place or being ignored, including a comprehensive purchasing policy and a hiring procedure guaranteeing merit selection.


I don't think they have any idea of the intent and spirit behind the charter, said the retired federal government manager.


It's much harder to undo things than to do them the right way the first time, he said.


Constructive feedback

Councilman Harry Haas said citizens often provide constructive feedback and criticism, particularly when speakers come with open minds and no personal agendas.


I really value some of their perspectives, he said.


He's aware some people are upset about the pace of changes, but said council and the administration can't come in with guns blazing.


Council members also must represent those who don't attend meetings, he said.


The people have chosen 11 on council to run Luzerne County and set the vision for Luzerne County, Haas said.


Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck agreed, saying voters have an opportunity to decide which council members should be elected every two years.


We need to be careful to listen to what all people say, not just those able to make it to our meetings, she said.


Councilman Jim Bobeck believes more people are watching county government, which he describes as a wonderful thing, because the corruption and $436 million in debt show a complete lack of oversight in the past.


Citizen involvement is always good, though it's always important to be offering solutions instead of just being a professional critic, Bobeck said.


Bobeck said he didn't realize the extent of the county's financial problems and ingrained bad past practices until he got in office. Council members and the manager see needed corrections but must abide by union contracts and legal limitations, he said.


We also must remember there are 320,000 other citizens of the county we don't hear from, and it's important to keep an open mind and not be skewed by 10 or so people we hear from at every meeting, he said.


Encouraging participation

Council Chairman Tim McGinley said he encourages citizen participation, especially recommendations and solutions.


He noted Kingston resident Therman Guamp offered helpful insight on audits and finance because of his background in that field, prompting council to appoint him to a council audit committee drafting a proposal to seek the next county auditor.


If citizens have some thoughts they want to share with us, I'm more than happy to listen, McGinley said.


 
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